Thursday, September 26, 2013

Editorial: Death Panel’s Last Stand?

In his professed crusade to derail Obamacare, Sen. Ted Cruz, the Canadian-American charlatan who is seeking to broaden his base from Texas to the nationwide Tea Party, played to the rubes Sept. 24-25 with his fake filibuster that, ironically, was supposed to block Senate consideration of the House bill that would defund Obamacare.

Cruz stayed on the Senate floor for more than 21 hours, delivering a rambling spiel that at one point included a reading from Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. He apparently was oblivious to the irony that the children’s story is about someone who says he does not like a food he has never tried, until he tries it and finds that he likes it. In the end, after declaring that “a vote for cloture is a vote to fund Obamacare,” Cruz ended up voting with the rest of the Senate, 100-0 for cloture.

Cruz and other Republicans went through this charade in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law in May 2010 over unanimous GOP opposition and, among other things, required insurance companies to actually make good on their promised coverage while helping lower- and middle-income Americans get affordable health coverage when their skinflint employers refuse to provide it.

Of course, some of us were unhappy in 2010 that the Democrats didn’t go ahead and expand Medicare to cover everybody, or at least provide a public option for Americans who don’t want to be forced to buy private insurance. But Vice President Joe Biden congratulated President Obama at the May 23, 2010, signing ceremony, telling him in what he thought was a private aside that the health care reform “is a big f***ing deal.” The ferocity of Republican opposition to the law, and the lies they have told about the reforms over the past three years in order to scare the working people the law was designed to help ought to validate Obamacare for progressives.

The reforms already have required insurance companies to provide free preventive care and annual health exams, allowed parents to include their children in their insurance plans until the kids are 26 and required insurance companies to provide rebates when their administrative costs and profits amount to more than 20% of premiums. Insurers also no longer can cancel policies if you get sick or made an honest mistake on your application; consumers can appeal insurance company decisions to an independent reviewer; and insurance companies no longer can limit an individual’s medical benefits. In 2014, insurers also no longer will be able to deny coverage to applicants with pre-existing conditions.

When Republicans were unable to come up with a Senate majority to repeal the reforms, they resorted to sabotage and now hostage-taking. As Tara Culp-Ressler noted at ThinkProgress, Republican governors at the state level have refused to extend health coverage to the working poor by rejecting the law’s optional Medicaid expansion, which is supposed to cover people below the poverty level (including those working at minimum wage), with the federal government paying more than 90% of the costs.

Republicans have undermined national public outreach efforts to teach Americans about their options under the law, and they have slashed the state-level budgets dedicated to marketing the new insurance plans. They’ve attempted to slow down enrollment by placing unnecessary restrictions on the people who are supposed to help Americans sign up for new Obamacare coverage. For example, in Texas, where 25% of workers are uninsured — the highest uninsured rate in the country — and health insurance is practically unregulated by the state, Gov. Rick Perry has chosen to impose draconian regulations on the health marketplace “navigators.”

Republicans have disseminated misinformation about the law and confused people about what it actually does. Some states have even simply refused to implement Obamacare’s provisions altogether. And as the state health insurance exchanges prepare for their debut on Oct. 1, Republicans are even advising young people to break the law by refusing to get insurance.

If you already have insurance through your employer, are enrolled in a government program like Medicare or if you purchase insurance on your own, the “individual mandate” won’t affect you — though if you buy your own insurance you might find a better deal on the exchange. If your employer cuts your insurance benefits or increases your share of the cost, it probably is because your company is run by a skinflint using Obamacare as an excuse to cut costs, but mom-and-pop businesses with 25 or fewer employees qualify for tax credits to help them offer health insurance to their employees. Small businesses with up to 100 employees can shop for health plans in the exchange. And if health care costs continue to rise, as some Obamacare critics predict, well, they were rising for a decade before the health reform was enacted, but at least the rate of increase has been reduced.

Democrats should work with labor unions to allow tax credits for union-sponsored multi-employer plans, also known as Taft-Hartley plans, that are bargained by unions and jointly administered with employers, usually for low-income, part-time and seasonal workers who might work for several employers during a year.

The mandate will affect 48 million Americans who are uninsured — 15.4% of the general population, according to the Census Bureau, but 25% of people in households with an annual income of less than $25,000. Many of those households will now qualify for Medicaid coverage — unless their Republican state officials have left them adrift by refusing Medicaid expansion. Families living in poverty won’t be required to pay for insurance, but they won’t get health care either, because of the Republican obstinance. Families above the poverty level are required to be insured but they will qualify for subsidies to help them buy insurance if they make less than $94,200 for a family of four (or $45,960 for a single person).

You can find out the truth about the Affordable Care Act and how to find your state’s health insurance marketplace online at or by calling toll-free 1-800-318-2596, where help is available 24/7. Signup starts Oct. 1 for coverage starting Jan. 1.

And if the program is implemented without the disruptions that Republicans are predicting, Ted Cruz likely will claim the credit.

Republicans might not get Obama and the Senate Democrats to agree with dismantling the Affordable Care Act, but Senate Democrats did agree to keep the job-killing austerity budget going into the new fiscal year with previously scheduled sequesters. The Congressional Budget Office in July reported that keeping sequester cuts in place through 2014 would cost the economy as many as 1.6 million jobs.

In case the “deficit hawks” try to take another run at “entitlement reforms” — that is, cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits so the richest 1% of Americans don’t have to pay the taxes they deferred during the Bush II administration — Dems need to remind their representatives in Congress that they paid for Social Security and Medicare and they are entitled to those promised benefits.

Richard Eskow noted at that leaders of “Fix the Debt,” a group of corporate executives who are trying to push the costs of budget cuts onto the working class, recently met to discuss the possibility of ramping up their campaign for a Grand Bargain to cut entitlements.

If expansion of the tax base is required to stabilize Social Security, that can be accomplished by lifting the cap on taxable income for the payroll tax from the current $113,700. Imposing a relatively small tax of 3 cents per $100 traded on Wall Street would be unnoticed by most investors but would curb market speculators and raise an estimated $352 billion over the next decade.

Anybody who professes concern about the federal deficit, then turns the discussion to “fixing” Social Security and/or Medicare without the option of lifting the cap on the payroll tax and/or the financial transaction tax is a fraud. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2013
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Selections from the October 15, 2013 issue

Turning healthy vegetables into unhealthy chips symbolic of cultural homogenization

By Marc Jampole
What could be healthier than starting dinner with a seaweed salad, then moving on to brown rice and black beans with a side of kale? What a rich balance of delicious tastes and colorful foods, and how healthy. Lots of cancer fighters, cholesterol reducers, plus no salt, sugar or chemical additives. Perfect for a vegan, and even good for a meat-eater who might add a small piece of chicken, fish, beef or lamb and still have a healthy meal.

But what a lot of work. It might take as much as a half hour to dress the seaweed, boil the rice, heat the chickpeas, sauté the kale and broil the meat.

How much easier to open a few bags and munch brown rice crackers, dried kale leaves, black bean chips and roasted seaweed snacks.  All meat-eaters have to do is add some beef jerky.

Yes, there are now chip versions of all these foods and others, too—cabbage, chickpeas, peas. In fact, American food processors have created snack chip versions of virtually every hot “super food” fad of the last few decades. For example, manufacturers have introduced 16 new versions of seaweed chips this year alone.

As readers may have already suspected, all of these chips are loaded with salt and many have sugar and chemical additives. All involve processing the life out of the original fruit or vegetable. An ounce of all these snacks delivers many more calories than an adult serving of the unprocessed food.

While 71% of all U.S. snack foods now make health claims, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, no one really believes that eating this stuff is healthy. It certainly is not as healthy as eating a serving of brown rice or kale.

People prefer the chips because of convenience and flexibility. It’s much easier to carry a bag of spiced dried chickpeas around than a plastic tub of chickpeas. And many people prefer the taste of salt and sugar to the bitterness of kale or the tang of cabbage. (Yes, there are also cabbage chips!).  They’re used to process food.

There is no doubt that chips bear a major part of the responsibility for the epidemic of obesity and obesity-related disease we face. But beyond health, the proliferation of faux-healthy chips represents another example of the homogenization of reality that we see everywhere. Instead of authentic Italian or Mexican food, Americans go to themed versions that use a few stylistic elements from the authentic cuisine to dress up American fare. These ethnic-themed restaurants tend to load down healthy traditional recipes with unnecessary frying and extra sauces laden with so much sugar and salt that they taste more like some standard muck than like Italian or Mexican. Check out how many chain restaurants serve the very same menu: hamburgers, fajitas, chicken strips, blackened meat.  And doesn’t it seem as if pizza dough and bagels now share the same consistency and overly sweet taste in most chain restaurants and packaged versions?

And it’s not just food. National chains for auto supplies, clothing, movie theatres, fabrics, toys, sporting goods, furniture, jewelry, hair stylists, urgent care facilities, drug stores, convenience stores, fitness clubs, massage studios and consumer electronic stores make every mall in every suburb and most smaller cities look virtually the same. Many of us prefer taking a phony riverboat at a Disney resort to a real one in New Orleans or viewing the faux Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty in a Las Vegas casino to the real deals in Paris and New York.  One theme—a landmark—associated with New York or Paris is placed in a homogenized environment, like a vegetable dehydrated and encased in salt, chemical additives and binders.

On another level, the concentration of media has led to homogenization of the information we receive, too, as more media run the same stories with the same point of view.

One could make the case that this homogenization is a good thing, because it turns the disparate cultures and nationalities of the United States into a unified whole—the melting pot that produces the cookie-cutter suburbs.  I prefer a vision of the United States as a rainbow of beliefs, practices, customs and cuisines, each retaining its own authenticity while also contributing its own richness to a glorious American mosaic. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Let’s not be lulled by a lull in global warming

By Marc Jampole
A few news stories don’t make a trend, but it seems as if the mass media are misreading some short term trends to present a more optimistic view of our future on earth than we really face.

Much of the news media has covered the news that the average global temperature has failed to rise over the past 15 years, despite the soaring levels of greenhouse gases we have been pumping into the atmosphere.  While no reporter has quoted Desi Arnaz yet, the tone of the articles could clearly be captured by his stock phrase, “Lucy, you have some 'splaining to do.”

The argument that treading water for 15 years disproves or calls into question the theory of human-induced climate change is absurd for several reasons. First of all, the earth is still much hotter than it was 150 years ago, much of the icecaps have already melted and we still have dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide in our oceans.  And while the average temperature on earth may have remained the same over the past 15 years, some parts of the earth have grown warmer, including the United States and most of Europe and China. 

Secondly, those who only look at the last 15 years make the mistake of trend localization: They are judging changes that take centuries on the basis of a few years. The earth goes through natural cycles of warming and cooling. Most phenomena act that way—the stock market doesn’t go up every day even during a raging bull market and children don’t grow the same amount every month or even every year, but grow by spurts. The important question is whether the average temperature on earth would be lower during the current cycle without the impact of all that additional carbon we are generating. I’m betting the answer is yes.

There is also the issue of the complexity of life on earth—our ecosystem comprises a number of cycles and smaller interlocking ecosystems. It’s possible that the earth has made a partial adjustment, but if we keep burning fossil fuels at the current rate, sooner or later, the earth will become less flexible. The increase in drought areas, the thriving of jellyfish in the oceans, the extinction or threatened extinction of so many species—so much is happening that tells us we have to change our ways or risk destroying our planet. By all means, scientists should continue to study the models that predict global warming. But we shouldn’t use a misinterpretation of short-term facts as an excuse for keeping our heads in the sand about climate change.

One environmental challenge—and I see it as the main one—is the sheer number of human beings walking the planet, about seven billion right now. It’s very convenient to ignore population control. The religious issues aside, most economists and politicians love an increasing population because it’s an easy way to grow the economy and they are addicted to growth. Any campaign to stabilize or reduce the population requires a plan to address how an economy may thrive without growth—in a solid state or even shrinking. My idea of thriving clearly doesn’t mean “growing bigger” but rather producing a high quality of life and economic opportunities for all its members.

Like the end of easy oil, reaching a population level that is unsustainable is the unspoken fear. It’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.  Many people, then, must have breathed a sigh of relief to learn the news that the standard forecast for population growth may be too high.

But like the report of a stable temperature over 15 years, “not as bad as” still doesn’t mean “good.” Instead of predicting that the world’s population will reach 10.9 billion by 2100, the latest statistical model says our population will peak at 8.7 billion by around 2055 and then decline to 8 billion by the turn of the next century. The models are based on the theory that as nations develop their citizens have fewer children. It’s a corollary of the idea that animals follow one of two reproductive strategies—have a lot of offspring and pay them no attention, or have a few and put a lot of energy into helping them to survive. In human terms, when people get wealthier, they tend to have fewer children.  The experience of Europe, the United States (except our immigrants) and Japan seems to support this idea.

The only problem is that even our current population of seven billion is too high. Half that amount is too high. The earth cannot carry so many humans on a long-term basis. We use too many of the earth’s non-renewable resources and leave too many messes in our wake. And imagine if most of the world raised its standard of living to the levels of Japan or Western Europe—they might produce fewer offspring but each person would be using a lot more resources!

I doubt that we will be able to formulate an adequate response to global warming and resource shortages without lowering the population on earth substantially.

Historically there have been three ways that human populations have decreased: war, famine or epidemics.  Let’s hope that instead of riding these three horses of the Apocalypse, most countries will instead decide to pursue aggressive policies to reduce our population in a more peaceful way: birth control. More people must make the decision to have one child in their lifetime, be it by following a new social norm or a draconian law.

So don’t believe that there’s good news about global warming and populations trends. These recent optimistic news reports are the equivalent of learning that you won’t die in six weeks, but in eight weeks—if the trends stay lucky.